Ten Things You May Not Have Known About George Mitchell

My latest book, George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet, is finally out in stores. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tweeted facts about Mitchell that aren’t widely known. I’ve collected them all here in one slideshow.

This has been an exciting project, and I’m glad to see it reach fruition. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it, and if you like it, please take a moment to go to your favorite online platform and rate it or even give a review.

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Mirror Images: George and Cynthia

GMT-S5MC-171023-15

A staff member at the Giant Magellan Telescope’s Mirror Lab places the last piece of glass into the mold for one of the massive mirrors, similar to those nicknamed “George” and “Cynthia.” (Photo: Giant Magellan Telescope Mirror Lab)

George Mitchell is known for perfecting the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and for his pioneering work in sustainable development. Less well-known is his support for Big Science late in his life.

As a boy growing up in Galveston, Mitchell would look at the skies and study the stars. He briefly thought about pursing a career in astronomy or cosmology, but having endured a childhood of financial hardship, he decided to go into energy because he thought he could make more money. After he sold his energy company in 2002, he returned to his love of the stars.

As part of his support for the physics program at his alma mater, Texas A&M, Mitchell also donated millions of dollars to the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is being built in the Chilean desert. One of my favorite parts of writing my book, George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet was exploring this time in Mitchell’s life, when he could be a catalyst for neglected research programs he believed were important.

Here’s what I wrote about the GMT:

Ultimately, George gave $25 million to the GMT project in addition to the money he gave A&M for the astronomy program. The first mirror was cast at the University of Arizona in 2005, and George flew out for the unveiling. Because of its size and precision, polishing and finishing the giant mirrors took another six and a half years. Freedman nicknamed the first two George and Cynthia.

George wound up giving far more than he’d planned to the physics and astronomy programs at A&M. Again, as with The Woodlands, his passion dictated his generosity. He was frustrated by the lack of public interest in the pure sciences. Businessmen gave money to business schools, and oilmen gave to petroleum engineering programs, but to George, these were just examples of the myopic thinking of too many corporate leaders. Pure science research focused on the biggest questions of all—where we came from, how we got here, how the universe was born. George was constantly pushing his publicist Dancie Ware to generate more acclaim for the GMT. “We need more science writers writing about science,” he would say.

George’s combined gifts made the GMT possible and vaulted A&M to a leading position in astronomy in less than a decade. In 2016, nine years after its founding, the program featured eight professors and one lecturer and was developing a doctorate degree. “I could not have the astronomy program that I have today—nothing even close to it—if George Mitchell hadn’t helped us when he did,” said Nick Suntzeff, the astronomer who leads the university’s efforts and holds a chair endowed, in part, by George.

But it’s the telescope that Suntzeff says could become the greatest testament to George’s philanthropy. The GMT is on track to beat the other giant telescopes to first light and begin scanning deep space for signs of life. “It would be a testament to George Mitchell
and the other people who provided funding if we could make a discovery of that magnitude with the telescope that they provided funds for,” Suntzeff said. “It would be an appropriate payback to their generosity.”

George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet is available for pre-order online and will be in bookstores Oct. 11.

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`We can do a better job’

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E.F. Schumacher

George Mitchell didn’t set out to build a better city or redefine the American suburb. Having made some money in the energy business, he began buying real estate to diversify his interests. But he also became increasingly aware of social challenges, especially the decay of America’s largest cities in the 1960s, and he decided to do something about it.

 

“I made the decision [that] we can do a better job in developing our cities,” he said.

He’d met the inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller at the Aspen Institute in 1959 and later, the economist E.F. Schumacher. As I write in George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet. Schumacher’s views in particular influenced Mitchell’s evolving thinking about sustainability.

Schumacher … advocated earth- and user-friendly technology that corresponded to the scale of communal life. Schumacher’s rational approach to economics and his view that people should matter most in economic theory appealed to George’s own pragmatism.(Schumacher also predicted the rise of OPEC, which may have caught George’s attention as well.) Listening to Schumacher and others in Aspen rounded out his views. He became more convinced than ever that government and business should work together to
develop sustainable societies. At the same time, he worried that politicians and business leaders were too shortsighted.

[…]

Instead of worrying about the next quarter’s financial results, business leaders had the power to shape the world in areas beyond their expertise, such as education, poverty, crime, transportation, and globalization. It was a realization that would redirect the course of his life. He began to see the focus of business as narrow and self-serving. Too many executives worried too much about short-term financial gain rather than long-term solutions. “Corporate America has the resources, but 90 out of 100 of my counterparts could care less,” he said. “Most never even expose themselves to major problems.” The realization would underpin a philosophy that would define his pursuit of both fracking and sustainable development.

Ironically, the Business Roundtable recently redefined its mission statement to reflect some of these same ideas. Mitchell, however, had a 50-year head start.

George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet is available for order online and will arrive in bookstores Oct. 11.

 

 

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What the frack?

WhatTheFrack

Not an accurate representation of how fracking works.

One of the unexpected controversies I encountered in writing my biography of Houston energy pioneer George Mitchell was the spelling of “fracking.” Many of the oil and gas sources I interviewed for the book insisted that spelling the word with a “k” was offensive. I decided to stick with the common spelling of “fracking,” but I did add a note explaining my choice:

 

Many geologists and petroleum engineers object to the spelling of “fracking.” Because the term is short for “fracturing,” they argue it should be spelled without the “k.” Indeed, early scientific papers written about the technique often refer to the need to “frac” a well, or the process itself as “fracing” or even “fraccing.” Phonetically, though, “fracing” would be pronounced “frace-ing.” As the technique entered the public lexicon, the “k” was added, in keeping with the tenets of English, and that is a practice I have continued
throughout this book.

Unfortunately for the industry, “frack” is also a euphemism for an expletive on the 1970s science fiction show Battlestar Galactica, and when that show was revived in 2004, the term was resurrected. The show’s popularity coincided with the widespread use of fracking. For many environmental groups, the irony was too delicious to ignore, and “fracking” became a derisive term applied to almost any form of drilling for oil or natural gas.

When the myths and hyperbole are stripped away, fracking has benefits as well as drawbacks, but for George Mitchell, it was part of a lifelong effort to make the world a better place.

This is one case where the English majors win. Of course, in George Mitchell’s day, fracking was considered an “unconventional” drilling method. Today, it’s common place. So maybe it’s time for a new term. On a recent podcast with the Houston Chronicle’s Nancy Sarnoff, I suggested “deep-earth rock massage.” Any other ideas?

If you’d like to read more about how fracking came into the mainstream, or how the man who made it work was also a champion of sustainable development, you can pre-order my book George P. Mtichell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet. It will be available in bookstores everywhere on Oct. 11.

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Tennis, everyone!

Mitchell and riggs

George Mitchell, second from right, at the Houston Open Golf Tournament in 1976 with tennis players (l-r) Andy
Williams, Bobby Riggs, and Wayne Glenn. (Photo: Dancie Ware)

Anyone who worked for George Mitchell knew of his obsession with tennis. Mitchell taught himself to play as a boy in Galveston, and he was captain of the tennis team at Texas A&M.

As CEO of Mitchell Energy and Development, employees knew that Mitchell left the office promptly every afternoon for his regular tennis match, and nothing kept him from it. His assistant, Linda Bomke, would break up any meetings that ran long, and some employees were known to follow Mitchell to the parking garage if they had something to tell him, because nothing kept him from his game.

In 1968, he helped found the Houston Racquet Club because he felt the city needed a venue exclusively devoted to tennis. As I explain in George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet he believed that too many country clubs in Houston were focused on golf, and the golf crowd looked down on tennis. Plus, many of them excluded Jews at the time, and some of Houston’s most prominent Jewish businessmen had been essential supporters of Mitchell’s energy company when he was starting out. Mitchell wanted a club that would be open to everyone. The Houston Racquet Club had no restrictions on membership, and it played a unexpected but important role in the advancement of women’s sports.

Three years after it opened, a group of top women players met with Gladys Heldman, once a top-ranked athlete who competed at Wimbledon in 1954. After her career, Heldman published an influential magazine, World Tennis, and became an advocate for professionalizing women’s tennis. The group included Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and seven others who at Heldman’s urging formed their own pro tour. Heldman convinced George and other key club members to host their first tournament. She then persuaded the chair of the tobacco company Philip Morris to underwrite the competition and donate $7,500 in prize money—at the time the biggest purse ever offered for a women’s-only tournament, which typically paid a fraction of what men received.32 The fledgling women’s league struggled to establish itself in the male-dominated world of professional tennis, but the effort that began with the meeting at the Houston Racquet Club evolved into the Virginia Slims tour, the cornerstone of women’s professional tennis.

The tour got an unexpected boost thanks to grousing from many prominent male players. The bickering culminated in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” between King and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs before thirty thousand people in Houston’s Astrodome, which George attended with some of his children.34 He didn’t realize it at the time, but his insistence on an all-inclusive club laid the foundation for the establishment of women’s professional tennis, which in turn opened more doors for women in other professional sports.

Mitchell was inducted into the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007.

George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet can be ordered online and will be available in bookstores everywhere on Oct. 11.

 

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Fracking’s Graceland

CW Slay No 1 for blog

It doesn’t look like the starting point for a revolution, but this well, the C.W. Slay #1, is where America’s energy renaissance began. The C.W. Slay #1 was the first well drilled into the Barnett Shale in 1981 by Mitchell Energy and Development. If you’re wondering why Saudi oil installations can come under attack in 2019 and gasoline prices in the U.S. haven’t spiked to more than $4 a gallon, it all comes back to this well.

It would be another 17 years before George Mitchell and his team figured out fracking and unleashed the natural gas reserves in the Barnett. But this is the well that convinced George Mitchell that the gas was there and made him determined to find a way to produce it.

Here’s what I write about the well in my book George P. Mitchell: Fracking, Sustainability, and an Unorthodox Quest to Save the Planet, which is available for pre-order now and will be in bookstores Oct. 11:

The C. W. Slay #1 juts upward through sparse, open prairie, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The wellhead itself is only about six inches in diameter, capped by a steel valve painted a drab gray green and faded from years of scorching North Texas sunshine. Far to the southeast, barely visible on the horizon, are the skyscrapers of
downtown Fort Worth.

Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. drilled the natural gas well in 1981, piercing the Barnett Shale formation about 7,500 feet below the scrubby surface. The company operated hundreds of other wells in the area, but this one was different. This one changed the world, although it would be two decades before anyone—including company namesake George P. Mitchell and his geologists and engineers—
realized it.

Today, to workers in the neighboring gas fields, the C. W. Slay #1 is something akin to Graceland for Elvis fans. The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, requires companies to post a sign declaring the name of each well, the amount of acreage in the lease, the identifying number that the commission assigns to it, and an emergency phone contact. As the fracking boom raged across North Texas from 2006 to 2014, thieves who were obviously well versed in industry lore often repeatedly stole the metal marker on the C. W. Slay #1.

To those unfamiliar with the energy business, the well is unremarkable. It’s hard to pick out from among dozens of similar wellheads nearby. But with the C. W. Slay #1, Mitchell Energy, a little-known, midsized natural gas producer, took the unconventional first steps that would shake up global energy markets as dramatically as the Middle Eastern oil embargoes that dominated the 1970s. The C. W. Slay #1 and the subsequent wells drilled into the Barnett formation laid the foundation for the “shale revolution,” proving that natural gas could be extracted from the dense, black rock thousands of feet underground.

Fracking, the process for unlocking those gas reserves in commercial quantities, came later. It would be almost a quarter century, in the late 1990s, before George Mitchell and his team perfected the process that transformed the energy landscape.

 

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Exposing the dark secrets of Texas’ wholesale power market

electric tower

Guido Gerding [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

One of the darkest secrets of Texas’ so-called deregulated electricity system, which is now almost 20 years old, is the wholesale power market. Wholesale prices fluctuate rapidly, and they affect prices that retailers must pay to get electricity from generators.

For years, I’ve been hearing complaints from traders about one party or another supposedly causing price spikes in the wholesale market, but no trader wants to come forward and put their name to the allegations. The reason is simple: they don’t want to get shut out of the market. Besides, proving that a particular spike is the result of actual manipulation is difficult, and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which is supposed to police such things, has shown little interest in stopping bad price signals.

Griddy, however, is a California electricity retailer that’s new to the opacity of the Texas market. It inadvertently pulled back the curtain on this shadowy corner of electricity deregulation, when it noticed that wholesale prices on May 30 spiked to $9,000 a megawatt hour — the maximum allowed by ERCOT — for no apparent reason. Griddy, as the Houston Chronicle’s L.M. Sixel wrote recently, then did something no one has done in the past 20 years: it calculated the price of the spike.

Griddy determined the cost was about $3 per customer, but said it also expected ERCOT to reprice the obvious error. ERCOT, however, doesn’t do that. Since most consumers buy electricity through long-term contracts, the effects of these spikes are muted, and the grid operator says that repricing improper trades would cause market instability.

It’s not often you hear a market cop argue that inaccurate pricing makes markets more stable, but that’s essentially what ERCOT is saying. No doubt, Jordan Belfort, the self-ordained “Wolf of Wall Street” is kicking himself for not making that argument to the Securities and Exchange Commission back in the day.

Markets, of course, function most efficiently when the pricing is most accurate. But the wholesale electricity market has been an open frontier of anything-goes pricing for years. Griddy’s revelation caused ERCOT board members to ask for more information, and a subsequent study revealed 55 similar incidents in a four-month period this spring, Sixel wrote.

(Calpine, a generator, admitted it was behind the May 30 error, which it blamed on a low-level IT employee, Sixel reported.)

ERCOT later admitted to the Public Utility Commission that these sorts of mistakes happen as much as once a day. In other words, the problem is a lot bigger than one errant IT guy. It appears that at any given moment, wholesale electricity prices are likely to be as much fiction as fact.

The market corrects, of course, but that’s not the point. Nor is the issue whether consumers are directly affected isn’t the issue, because deregulation in Texas was never about benefiting consumers. Griddy’s findings became the basis for a complaint filed with the PUC by the trading firm Aspire Commodities, which noted that the pricing irregularity in May resulted in $18 million being transferred to generators who sold power at the inflated prices.

And if, as ERCOT admits, this sort of thing goes on daily, then the entire wholesale market is operating more like a casino, with generators profiting from “mistakes” of inaccurate pricing.

The next study the ERCOT board should commission is whether these daily price manipulations are pushing up average prices over the long term, because if so, then consumers are paying more than they should for electricity in this alleged free market no matter how much they shop around among retailers.

Griddy’s revelation shows that after 20 years of trying to create transparent markets for electricity, Texans are still left in the dark.

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